Lake Mead, a huge reservoir fed by the Colorado River has seen its levels drop as a lengthy drought bites the US West AFP / Frederic J. BROWN

The Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) is dedicated to conserving waterways, fighting climate change, and empowering Latino communities across the United States to deal with these issues. In an interview with The Latin Times, Director of Conservation Programs at HAF, Shanna Edberg, talked about the organization's mission, the impact of polluted waterways on Hispanic communities in the U.S. and the challenges the demographic faces at a general level.

Edberg said HAF's work is holistic: it provides resources and empowers Latinos to become leaders in government agencies, facilitates access to healthcare, supports faith leaders to be community leaders, promotes STEM education and urban forest initiatives. She said developing Latino leaders throughout communities ties the entire mission together.

"One really standout member of our faith community is Pastor Moses Borjas. He lives in El Paso, Texas, and most recently, in March, was the culmination of a very long campaign to designate a new National Monument in El Paso called Castner Range National Monument this campaign had been ongoing for about 50 years," Edberg said. "What Pastor Moses was able to do was to host community events, really turn out the community, turn out petitions, work with allied communities, the environmental community, as well as the military presence there because Castner Ranges is home to a military base."

Edberg said establishing the Castner Range as a National Monument brings protections to the area, which is very nature-deprived. She said Latino communities and communities of color disproportionately lived in these nature-deprived areas. So national monument designation makes it so development is not allowed in the area, creating an area that is protected for generations.

Polluted Waterways

The Hispanic Access Foundation recently published its "Waterways Report," which Edberg says shows why healthy rivers are so important to Latino communities, but also illustrates the threats they face and proposes some solutions.

"Healthy rivers are a really key ingredient to making sure that communities have safe and abundant drinking water, water for agriculture and other uses" Edberg said. "What we also found in this report is that rivers are really important to Latino culture, heritage, and recreation. A huge majority of Latinos believe that it is important to conserve clean water and rivers because it's a part of their value system because they want to protect clean water sources."

Edberg added that some of the biggest challenges waterways in Latino communities can face are pollution, drought and flooding. She said the report found that 84% of Latino voters believe conserving land, water and wildlife habitat is crucial to protect drinking water sources. She specifically mentioned the Mississippi River, which is seeing a growing Latino population on its margins.

"But what's happening on the Mississippi is that it's a couple of years of really extreme drought from barges not being able to flow," Edberbg said. "It's stopped commerce on the river, it's causing saltwater intrusion in New Orleans that is threatening their freshwater drinking water sources, and in other places, there might be issues of too much water."

Edberg said these effects of climate change on the Mississippi River have been volatile, even seeing wildfires in unusual areas. All of these weather conditions affect agriculture and ranching, she said. Despite all of these concerning issues on the Mississippi River, Edberg said the area has created an opportunity for Latino communities to mobilize, start working towards protecting their rivers, try some solutions that can restore the river and mitigate some of the impacts of climate change.

Another river of concern for the Latino community is the Colorado River, which Edberg said is facing a megadrought, and, on top of that, the water systems for the Colorado River were set up inequitably and also distributed too much water.

"That is an area where we have a really strong Latino community. For example, one of the statistics in the report is that 73% of Latino voters in those states view low river levels as a very serious or extremely serious issue, 84% believe it requires urgent action, and 83% view the Colorado River as critical to their state's economy. So this is definitely an area where we think that the Latino community can really show how important these issues are to them."

One of the ways HAF advocates for these issues facing is through events such as Latino Conservation Week and Latino advocacy week, where they bring community leaders with to Washington D.C. to meet lawmakers and generate discussions about different issues facing the Latino communities. She said this year they are looking to discuss the Farm Bill, a piece of legislation which addresses agricultural run off, pollution and making farms and rural communities part of the climate change solution.

Edberg said there a few ways to mitigate some of these climate change issues that affect the Mississippi, Colorado and other waterways is through restoration and protection projects, but there are also other larger ways to protect them.

"On the long-term scale, the national, global effort, what we really need to do is reduce climate change because the more our climate changes, the more we're going to see these droughts and water shortages. But what we can do at the local scale is to engage in the restoration of rivers and of the ecosystems surrounding rivers, which has a huge amount of really awesome benefits," Edberg said. "Like we talked about earlier, river ecosystems really help filter water, like plant vegetation actually helps remove pollutants from the water, they also help control floods."

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